The Brief History of Coffee

Coffee is perhaps one of the most popular beverages around the world today regardless of race, ethnicity, or nationality. It is one of the most valuable and highly traded commodities today, second only to oil. In fact, people drink around 2.25 billion cups of the stuff every year. Needless to say, a morning cup of coffee is something billions of people around the world have in common.

This wasn’t always the case, however. In fact, this little bean had to undergo an arduous journey before it got to where it is today. The origin of the word ’coffee’ should tell you that much. Rooted in several languages – it came to be called under several monikers from the qahwah in Yemen to kahveh in Turkish, to koffie in Dutch before finally becoming coffee in English. Even the way it was consumed changed over time.

The history of coffee is quite an interesting topic we shall be exploring – from its mythical origins to its complex role in global events.

Though we are certain that it originated in Ethiopia, the origins of coffee are steeped in legend, mystery, and lore. We are certain of this because Ethiopia hosts one of the earliest tales surrounding coffee, namely the legend of the goat herder named Kaldi.

The legend goes that he found his goats energetically dancing after eating some red fruits. When Kaldi tried the berries for himself, he found that was felt reinvigorated and full of energy. He then gave it to a monk who took it back to the monastery and shared it with his fellow monks. They spent the night awake, alert, and in prayer.

While the actual truth behind this yarn can be easily put into question, the existence and endurance of the legend alone should give you an idea of how culturally significant this drink is. The legend is also important for another reason, as it gives us a definitive answer regarding the plant’s place of origin.

The coffee plant remained in Africa for a long time. When it finally crossed the Red Sea, it arrived in the port of Mocha in Yemen in the 15th century. It eventually reached the Arabian peninsula and the drink’s popularity skyrocketed all over the Muslim world. Centuries later, traces of this fateful journey remain apparent as the name Mocha has become synonymous with this fantastic beverage.

As a precursor to today’s coffee culture, the medieval Muslim world enjoyed their coffee at home as well as in many public coffee houses. These qahveh khaneh became the hub for social activity, conversation, and public discussions. Soon enough, these coffee houses became known as Schools of the Wise.

While the “wine of Araby” steadily gained popularity, the coffee plant remained exclusively in Arabia and Africa. It wasn’t until the 1600s, when Baba Budan left Mecca with coffee beans in tow, that the rest of the world would begin to learn of this caffeinated concoction.

At this point, tracing the spread of coffee to Europe, Asia, and the Americas would be impossible without touching on one of the world’s most tragic chapters – colonialism. By 1616, the Dutch established the first European-owned coffee plantation in Ceylon, modern-day Sri Lanka. The French, the Spanish, and the Portuguese would do the same in the Caribbean, Central America, and Brazil, respectively. These colonial coffee estates were established primarily to satisfy the demands of the mother country.

The drink wouldn’t gain popularity in the New World until the American Revolution. Following the Boston Tea Party of 1773, there was a profound change in terms of the people’s drink of choice. That said, the switch from tea to coffee for Americans became inevitable.

By the 1800s, coffee would be known as one of the most widely consumed commodities in the world. This would spur the rise of the global industry.

Coffee has certainly come a long way. Springing from its obscure origins, it has become one of the most important culinary exercises that we know. As the science of coffee progresses, we have come to understand the sheer potential of this drink – something made apparent by the infinitely varied ways we consume coffee today.

This, along with the rise of these artisanal and independently-owned cafes and roasters all over the world, is nothing but the latest chapter in the history of coffee. Needless to say, the future of coffee is vibrant and bright. It fills us with excitement to see what comes next. 

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